May 7th, 2012
09:51 AM ET

What LBJ could teach Washington today

Historian Robert Caro has spent almost 40 years studying and writing about President Lyndon B. Johnson. The result of that toil, in addition to two Pulitzer prizes, is about 3,388 pages so far on Johnson's life.

The fourth volume, "Passage of Power," has just published.

In the web exclusive video above, Caro talks about why Johnson could get things done in Washington and gives an example of what he calls Johnson's legislative genius in action.

On Sunday's GPS show interview, Caro said Johnson could offer today's politicians - and president - lessons on wielding power. Below is an excerpt of that interview. (Watch the entire interview on Sunday's GPS episode on iTunes)

ZAKARIA: Contrast the style of Lyndon Johnson with this enormous legislative accomplishment [the Civil Rights Act], with the style of Barack Obama, as you have seen him.

CARO: Well, I know I'm supposed to say that there's this great contrast and Obama hasn't done enough, but I feel Obama was faced with some real problems that we hardly remember anymore: the extent of the financial crisis. I happen to think he has made great strides.

You know, people find a lot wrong with health care legislation, Fareed, as do I, the bill that's passed. But I keep remembering something that Lyndon Johnson said. Once we pass it, we can always go back and amend it. And I feel it was an accomplishment to get a health care bill.

ZAKARIA: But what about the issue that people raise about just the style of it - which is, he delegated too much of the stimulus or even health care to Congress. Do you think he should have been more active? Or, the alternative view is, look, the Republicans are very strong. The important thing is to get something done. Would Johnson have taken a more activist role?

CARO: You can answer that definitely. Johnson would have been on the phone every minute with the leaders of Congress. I mean, to watch him work on peopl ... Everybody says Johnson was always talking. Not so. You listen to him on with - when he wants somebody - when he wants something from somebody - he will let the senator talk and he will let the senator talk, and all you hear from Johnson sometimes is uh-huh, uh-huh. Until he hears what he wants to hear. What's the lever he can push with this guy? What does he want? And then Johnson starts speaking.

You know, in this book Kennedy has a tax cut bill. It's snarled in the finance committee. Someone calls him at, like, 12:00 exactly and say they've just broken for lunch, and we're three votes short. We're not going to get the bill through. Johnson says who are they? And the guy names the three senators. Johnson says to his secretary, get them on the phone for me one after the other.

One is Abe Ribicoff. He says you know, Abe, I put you on whatever committee he put you on. He says I want you to help me.

Ribicoff says, well, I have already persuaded my constituents. I'll lose face. Lyndon Johnson says to him, you save my face today, I'll save your face tomorrow. And Ribicoff knows that Johnson is a bad man to cross, but a good man to have on your side.

One of the other senators wants something, has to do with a mineral bill. Johnson says he will give it to him.

In 14 minutes if I have that right, the exact time is in my book, he has turned these three senators around. So if you want to know a contrast in style, Lyndon Johnson was a contrast with everyone else. He was the greatest legislator certainly since Roosevelt and perhaps even including Roosevelt. He was a legislative genius.

It seems impossible to pass a voting rights act in 1965. He does it vote by vote. And it's almost - you know, if you care about - my books are really about political power. If you care about political power, you say there never was a man with a talent - a talent that is beyond a talent - a gift that's beyond a gift. There never was anyone who could do this like Johnson.

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Topics: GPS Show • Politics • President Obama

soundoff (93 Responses)
  1. marcparella

    From my perspective, I have very little good to say about Mr. Johnson. He used ever dirty trick to get what he wanted. He held few real convictions and rode the political winds of the day to his advantage. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was indeed noble in concept but so flawed a piece of legislation that its unintended consequences actually contributed to greater social and economic inequities for minorities rather than cured them. It was the ultimate "feel-good" law and LBJ pushed it through Congress with the expressed purpose of derailing Goldwater's campaign.

    For what it is worth, Barry Goldwater would not have committed 500,000 US troops to fight a 'no-win" war. He knew that Vietnam was unwinnable and that proxy wars were never part of the conservative strategy to fighting the cold war. (Conservatives voted for Goldwater because they were against the Vietnam war) Maybe Goldwater wasn't the smartest "politician" we ever had, and he certainly was at times naive about the political maneuverings of his day, but the man had conviction - and actually believed in what he promoted. And what he promoted was, in his heart, in the best interest for all. LBJ promoted what was in the best interest for LBJ.

    Sadly we are still living with the missteps Lyndon Johnson laid at the doorstep of our nation. And in today's political landscape we have a dysfunctional right wing and an unfocused middle. We haven't yet heard from the left in quite some time and you can put some of the blame on LBJ for this.

    May 7, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Reply
  2. casey

    I am really beginning to be disgusted by the revisionist historians take on LBJ

    First, on Civil Rights and the Voting rights act.
    A little History. Both were first proposed by Eisenhower as president. He saw how the Black Veterans of the war were being treated and couldn't stand that. LBJ spent his time as senate leader opposing both, allowing only watered down version of each to pass in 54 and 55. (it might have been 53 and 54)
    As president, he threatened to veto both. I suggest Caro actually read the congressional record from 1952 to 1968 concerning Johnson. I Have. He was no friend of either act and refused to enforce either.
    And finally, if caro had taken the time to actually read the records of what was going on during the fight by the republicans for the passage of the latest incarnation of their voting rights and civil rights act, he would have found that this action was led by the republcians, trying to get enough moderate democrate on board to pass the legislation over LBJ's veto threat.
    They finally did it, the acts were passed, and a republcian was the first to enforce them.That took Nixon to do.

    On the Kennedy/Johnson victory, he was part of the "stolen'election (dead and duplicate voters on Texas and Illinois' that Nixon refused to challange, though that was reccomended by many.)

    As a senate leader, then VP and then president, he was not a leader. He was a Bully.
    Just read the records. Read his letters. Read news accounts of the time. I have done that.
    But then Caro would have to do actual historical research. And we can't have that can we.

    May 7, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Reply
    • marcparella

      There were two Eisenhower Civil Rights bills that passed. One in 1957 and another one in 1960. Goldwater voted for both bills.

      May 7, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Reply
      • casey

        Those were actually the first rewrites of the earlier bills that passed that were so watered down by the dems to get them passed they were almost laughable, if not for their serious nature.

        May 7, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
  3. casey

    to j. von hettlingen
    The voting rights and civil rights acts were not first proposed by LBJ.
    The versions that finally passed over LBJ's objections were just expansions of the acts first proposed by eisenhower and in limited fashion passed by congress. The 60's acts
    that passed were proposed by the republcans.
    Thats all in the congressional record if you'd like to look them up.LBJ spent his life opposing both.

    May 7, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Reply
  4. Rick Springfield

    Well, he could teach them real good.
    First of all. Ladybird met Marina Oswald at a Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs mixer for the Russian Attache to the US Embassy in Dallas. Ladybird was introduced to Marina by Ruth Paine, a cultural affairs volunteer. Ruth then rented her back apartment to Marina and Lee for them to give a comfortable place for the baby. Ruth also knew Lee struggled to get a job in Dallas and was not making it. She used her connections at the Dallas School Board to get him a janitorial position at the Dallas School Book Depository. Ruth also signed for the Italian rifle he had ordered from a magazine. Marina and Lee had opportunities to talk with Ladybird on several occasions and heard of her disdain for Kennedy. Ladybird felt like Kennedy was holding up the country. Also Ruth Paine's husband was an engineer for Bell Helicopter. He was not happy that Kennedy would not allow the US to fully enter the hostilities in SE Asia as it would mean a boon for Bell. So Lee was able to come up with the idea that if Kennedy was out of the way, Johnson would become president and the state of Texas would reel in all kinds of benefits. So Lee learned of the route that the motorcade was taking that day and took a rather easy shot to eliminate Kennedy and thus propel Johnson into the office. Part 2 of his plan also went to full fruition because Johnson signed the orders placing the US into full involvement into Vietnam. Bell wound up getting an order from the Pentagon for 16,000 units. Bell cashed in huge on those orders and to this day is still a large, financially viable company located right between Fort Worth and Dallas. All thanks to Lee listening to the Paines and Mrs. Ladybird.

    May 7, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Reply
    • Billy Z

      Dear Rick Springfield (if that is your real name), two words: coo & coo!

      May 7, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Reply
    • FHTEX

      Lee Harvey Oswald was, in his own words, a "patsy". There were incontrovertibly more than thre shots fired at the President and the fatal one that blew his brains backward came from the grassy knoll. All of your conjecturing neglects the basic forensics of the assassination.

      May 8, 2012 at 3:15 am | Reply
  5. Fed Up

    Anyone who thinks that the benefit of society is to raise taxes for social welfare programs sends an invitation for taxpayer abuse, and that's just what we have today. Free rent, utility payments, cell phones, daycare, food stamps, bus and taxicab vouchers... the list goes on. The payments go on and on... for decades to the same people and families. There's nothing LBJ could teach the government.

    May 7, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Reply
  6. ruth

    He was a piece of crap!

    May 7, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Reply
  7. casey

    Fianl note for the night.
    I love the Obamma people that hate Bush
    And the Bush people that hate Obamma.
    There policies are the same. There the same man folks.
    Both are Ivy league Oligarchist, who belive in big is better.
    Both came from upper class families. (Obamma was raised by his grandparents in Hawaii, she a bank VP, he a top sales person, 1%'s I am sure.)
    Both have the total support of Wall Street and Big Business. Both supported Tarp (Which Romney opposed)
    Both pursue the same social and economic policies. (keynes does't work folks)
    Obamma has continued without change the Cheney/Bush foreign policy of contianment regarding the ONE war going on against Al Quida with all of its fronts.
    What's the difference folks.
    When Reagon was president the debt was under control and main street controlled 85+% of the capital.
    Under Clinton the debt was under control and Main Street still controlled 80% of the capital.
    Today, after 12 years of Bush/Obamma the debt is out of control, the economey in stuck in a recession, and 90% of the nations capital is held by a select few on wall street.

    May 7, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Reply
    • David Hale

      Casey: it would really help if you knew how to spell ... It's "Obama", not Obamma , you moron. Domestically LBJ was one of our greatest presidents and he was by far the greatest legislator. I was there. I don't have to read the congressional record. Why should we believe you have when you can't even spell. You are the one who is trying to re-write history ... and you are doing it badly.

      May 7, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Reply
    • Solo

      This might be someone who is draining my tax dollars with the "everyone gets an education, housing, cell phone..." program. If you're going to spend my money and refer to the lousy leader who thinks it's essential, at least learn how to spell O B A M A.
      His mother found a way to collect welfare so I'm sure that's why he has such a soft spot for the bleeding of the budget. LBJ wanted this "Great Society" too. (Great if you're not paying for it!)

      May 7, 2012 at 9:13 pm | Reply
  8. Lisa

    Lets see what LBJ could teach Washington..How about how to assassinate a sitting president,or how to cover up the attack of the USS Liberty by Israel..or how to escalate a war over lies about the gulf of Tonkin attack..He was a liar and a murderer..

    May 7, 2012 at 9:26 pm | Reply
  9. b p

    All I need to know is LBJ could have gotten us out of vietnam but he didn't.

    May 7, 2012 at 9:49 pm | Reply
  10. Babette Levin

    Fareed, I heard you deride the size and scope of homeland security Sunday. How would YOU handle the continuing threat from Yemeni bomb builders and the threat of body bombs?

    May 7, 2012 at 10:30 pm | Reply
  11. samsart

    LBJ and Nixon dipped into SS. In covert operations the US was in Southeast Asia at the behest of Eisenhower and Nixon. Ladybird had the money. She owned the TV and radio stations that could disseminate information. LBJ was a misogynistic blowhard. He came from the time of hard drinking, hard partying and holding as much dirt as possible on people so he could use it when Ladybird told him to. He miscalculated portions of Viet Nam and his old methods didn't work any longer. The look on Ladybirds' face when LBJ took the oath of office in the plane tells you all you need to know.

    May 7, 2012 at 10:34 pm | Reply
  12. Keith

    Lyndon Johnson was a great American and a great Texan. He did his best, with what he had to work with, no matter the outcome no one has ever loved this country more than Lyndon.

    With all great men you have to accept the Good with the Bad and some have more foibles than others. We are however, electing our leaders, not saints.

    May 8, 2012 at 12:16 am | Reply
  13. Rod C. Venger

    Too easy. LBJ could teach Obama and the rest of the Democrats that the American people recognize a scammer when they see one, and it's far better to not run for re-election than to run and then go on to be Nixon did. Johnson wisely saw the writing on the wall, that he was making things worse, not better, and he bailed, rightfully so. A man that knows his own limitations will always have my respect. Those that believe they are some sort of a messiah, and try to convince others of that, have my eternal pity and condemnation. Obama need to check his ego and then check out of the White House guest suite.

    May 8, 2012 at 12:31 am | Reply
  14. mmi16

    Johnson – from his long tenure in Congress – knew how to wield power in Congress – who could be blackmailed about pork, who could be bribed with pork – the power to say Yea or Nea and make it stick. The power of the smoke filled back rooms. Plus Congress wasn't as 'bought' then as it has become today.

    The US today has the best form of government money can buy; it is being bought and sold daily!

    May 8, 2012 at 3:48 am | Reply
  15. jon

    LBJ could teach us ho to plot against JFK and then take his job. He could also tell us how he destroyed the black family with his welfare programs and how generations of able bodied folks refused to work as long as they got to suckle at the gov'ment teat

    May 8, 2012 at 6:01 am | Reply
  16. Earl Weaver

    LBJ was very good at spending other peoples' money.

    May 8, 2012 at 7:29 am | Reply
  17. Carrie Wells

    All of you represent the polarization of this country and why we are really in the mess we are in. You all are so smart and have all of the answers! Meanwhile, you don't really care about your country but about your ideology!! I have watched the birth of idiots who do nothing more than argue who is right and who is wrong while our country is on the way to becoming a 3rd world country! My heart goes out to those who have sacrificed their lives for this country when you are the legacy. Shame on all of you!!

    May 9, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Reply
  18. Cbd Tincture

    Can you spare me an extra moments of your time to answer just a few concerns? I simply got to let you know that I am super impressed. I seriously appreciate your work and I'm waiting for the next article. Will there be a part 2 some time in the future?

    December 21, 2018 at 2:57 am | Reply
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